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Science & Society, Vol. 80, No. 3, July 2016, 319–345
•
The Commodity Nature of Labor-Power
GUIDO STAROSTA and GASTÓN CALIGARIS
ABSTRACT: Some recent Marxist contributions, among them the
so-called New Solution to the “transformation problem,” call into
question the idea of labor-power as a fully-fledged commodity. Yet,
the rejection of the commodity nature of labor-power compromises
Marx’s whole explanation of the origin of surplus-value on the
basis of the exchange of equivalents. It can be shown, however,
that it is possible to offer a positive case for the commodity-nature
of labor-power which is consistent with Marx’s broader dialectical
investigation of the determinations of the value-form. This requires
building upon the arguments that Marx explicitly put forward in
his economic works, but also going beyond them, albeit on the basis
of those arguments themselves. Furthermore, this novel approach
that treats the reproduction of labor-power as a commodity determined by the self-valorization of capital proves to be very valuable
in shedding light on two classic Marxist controversies, namely: the
debate on domestic labor and the one on skilled labor.
Introduction
I
N A LETTER TO BECKER from April 17, 1867, Marx referred
to Capital as “without question the most terrible MISSILE that
has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie (landowners
included)” (Marx, 1987a, 358). Unfortunately, in the rest of that brief
note Marx does not clarify the specific sense in which he considered his
work to be such a “terrible missile” against the bourgeoisie. However, it
seems quite safe to assume that his scientific explanation of the source
of capitalist “profit” in the exploitation of wage-workers was among
those fundamental aspects of the critique of political economy that he
had in mind. As is widely known, the key to this explanation resides
in the discovery of the existence of a commodity “whose use-value
319
320SCIENCE & SOCIETY
possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value” (Marx,
1976a, 270). This commodity is, of course, labor-power which, “like
all other commodities . . . has a value” (Marx, 1976a, 274).
Now, in light of this centrality of the commodity nature of laborpower for Marx’s critical investigation of the nature of the capital relation, its rejection can only amount to turning that “terrible missile”
against Marx himself. In effect, once we reject the commodity nature
of labor-power, then Marx’s whole explanation of the origin of surplusvalue on the basis of the exchange of equivalents falls down. As Krätke
comments while revisiting the very early critiques of Marx’s “unsolved
puzzles” in the theory of wages, the “corollary” of such a rejection of the
proposition that labor-power is a commodity and has a value “like all
other commodities” is “clear and devastating” (Krätke, 2009, 166). Yet,
this objection to the commodity nature of labor-power has resurfaced in
the last couple of decades. Curiously enough, it has not been advanced
by Marx’s “detractors” but, as we discuss below, by some of his followers.
A first aim of this article is to critically engage with some of these
recent Marxist contributions which, whether they see it as a rectification or ratification of Marx’s argument in Capital, call into question
the idea of labor-power as a fully-fledged commodity. This is done in
the next section, where we review some of the main positions in this
contemporary debate. In addition, we subsequently offer a positive
case for the commodity-nature of labor-power that builds upon, but
also goes beyond, the arguments that Marx explicitly put forward in
his economic works. Finally, in order to illustrate the usefulness of this
novel take on the determinations of the commodity labor-power, we
revisit two classic Marxist controversies that are intimately connected
with the central subject matter of this paper, namely: the debate on
domestic labor and the one on skilled labor.
Marxist Controversies over Labor-Power as a Commodity
The objection to the commodity nature of labor-power and, a fortiori, to
the determination of its value by the socially necessary labor-time required
for its production, can be traced back to the whole series of critiques of
Marx that emerged as soon as Volume III of Capital was published.1
1 As argued elsewhere (Kicillof and Starosta, 2007a), in its simplest determination privately
undertaken labor is socially necessary (hence value-producing) if it satisfies two conditions:
first, it corresponds to the technologically normal conditions of production prevailing in
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
321
Thus, already in 1907 Bortkiewicz argued that since there is no
“competition between producers” of this commodity, wages cannot
be subordinated to “the general law of value” and therefore its value
cannot be determined in the same way as the value of other commodities (Bortkiewicz, 1952, 57). Strictly speaking, this first line of criticism
mainly and explicitly revolved around the denial of the existence of an
adjustment process of the price of labor-power to the average socially
necessary labor-time for the production of this particular commodity.
However, insofar as in Bortkiewicz’s Ricardian approach there was no
clear distinction between the price and the value of labor-power, the
implausibility of such an adjustment mechanism implicitly called into
question the very foundations of the value-content of labor-power. In
fact, Bortkiewicz concluded that real wages had to be taken as fixed
(Bortkiewicz, 1952, 57). According to Krätke, Tugan-Baranowsky went
even further and argued that “labor power was not a commodity at
all, wages could not be considered a ‘value phenomenon’ and Marx’s
theory of wages was outright wrong or just tautological” (Krätke, 2009,
169). Yet, as Krätke also reports, Marxists at that time did not respond
to the challenge (Krätke, 2009, 166).
Although similar arguments emerged later in the 20th century,
and on this occasion among scholars who were otherwise sympathetic
to Marx’s ideas (e.g., Castoriadis, 1988; Bowles and Gintis, 1981), it has
been in relatively recent times that the objection cropped up within
the specialized Marxist literature. Moreover, in many cases the objection to the commodity nature of labor is not seen just as a correction
to an allegedly inadequate treatment of the subject by Marx, but is
even presented as a reflection of Marx’s own views.
This rejection of the commodity nature of labor-power and,
consequently, of Marx’s account of the determination of its value,
has come from rather disparate traditions. The so-called systematic
dialectics strand of value-form theory is a case in point. Thus, Chris
Arthur takes “distance from Marx’s attempt to treat labor power as a
produced commodity subject to the law of value” (Arthur, 2006, 90).
More specifically, he states that “wage-labor should be treated in the
same way as landed property, namely as a material presupposition of
society (Marx, 1976a, 129), and, second, it can satisfy a social need (Marx, 1976a, 131), regardless of whether that need arises from “the stomach or the imagination” (Marx, 1976a,
125). In other words, only under those two circumstances is the objectification of the abstract
character of private labor socially represented in the form of value.
322SCIENCE & SOCIETY
capitalist production, which is rewarded with part of the value created
in production, namely the wage” (Arthur, 2006, 90; see also Reuten
and Williams, 1989, 68; and Roblez Baez, 2011, 26–27n).
Still, the most remarkable case is that of the so-called “New
Solution” or “New Interpretation” to the “transformation problem”
(Foley, 1982; Lipietz, 1982; Dumenil, 1983). In effect, unlike the
rather incidental role played by the rejection of labor-power as a
“genuine commodity” among “new dialecticians,” for these other
scholars it constitutes one of the pillars on which their whole theoretical construction is based. On the other hand, their arguments
have already been critically examined quite sharply by other Marxist
scholars (Mavroudeas, 2001; Fine et al., 2002), which provides us with
a firmer basis to develop our own arguments.
Perhaps the clearest formulation of the New Solution’s corollary
about the commodity nature of labor-power can be found in the work
of Simon Mohun. According to this author, labor-power
is not a produced commodity in the same sense [as other commodities].
It is a capacity or potentiality of people, and people are not (re)produced
under capitalist relations of production. No capitalist production process is
involved, no process of adding value to the means of production by living
labor; neither do there exist different technologies of production in competition with one another which must be averaged to find a market value.
(Mohun, 1994, 398.)
For this reason, Mohun continues, Marx’s own definition of the value
of labor-power is not given in terms of the labor-time required for its
production but “in terms of the value of the commodities which the
money-value of labor-power can purchase, or command” (Mohun,
1994, 398). It is this novel conception of the value of labor-power that
provides one of the keys to this approach’s specific solution to the
“transformation problem.” In effect, under this new definition, the
value of labor-power is determined as the part of total value-added
represented by the wage share. However, through an idiosyncratic
formal procedure, they still conclude, in a roundabout way, that the
money-wage represents a determinate quantity of socially necessary
abstract labor.
The first step in the New Solution’s construction is to posit an
“immediate equality between the total price of the net product and
the total living labor performed in each period” (Mavroudeas, 2001,
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
323
59). On this basis, these authors subsequently obtain the “monetary
expression of labor” (MEL) as the ratio between the total price of
the net product and the total hours worked. The MEL thereby allows
them to transform money-prices into “labor-values.” In the case of
labor-power, its “value” expressed in “labor-time” is calculated by multiplying the rate of money-wages by the MEL. Through this peculiar
procedure, these scholars consider that they avoid the problem of
transforming variable capital and, as a consequence, that they offer
a way to sidetrack the divergence between total profits and total surplus value. However, this “solution” to the “transformation problem”
comes at the cost of parting company with Marx’s own definition of
the value of labor-power as determined by “a definite quantity of the
average social labor objectified in it” (Marx, 1976a, 274). As Foley
puts it in his seminal contribution to the New Solution, “the value of
labor power, in this perspective, is the fraction of the total abstract
social labor time claimed by workers in the form of the wage” (Foley,
1982, 42; see also Mohun, 1994, 403). Although not all supporters of
the New Solution explicitly draw the conclusion that this entails the
rejection of the commodity nature of labor-power, we will see below
that this is the necessary implication of this approach.
As mentioned above, this conception of the value of labor-power
has been strongly criticized by other Marxist scholars. In our view, Mavroudeas’ (2001) critique stands out as probably the sharpest and most
illuminating. According to this author, there are several shortcomings in the New Solution approach. In the first place, this approach
violently abstracts from the intermediate steps that lead from socially
necessary labor for the reproduction of workers to the value of laborpower. Specifically, it “discards the intermediation of a set of use-values
(and their value) between necessary labor-time and money-wages and
proceeds to link them directly” (Mavroudeas, 2001, 59). The upshot of
this is that the “New Solution’s conception of the value of labor-power
ends up with a Smithian labor-commanded conception of value rather
than one based on abstract labor” (Mavroudeas, 2001, 59). In turn,
this has the consequence of grounding the quantitative determination
of the value of labor-power in extra-economic factors which, “when
this is supplemented with the rejection of the commodity-nature of
labor-power, then it can easily lead to a prioritization of power relations independently and almost prior to socio-economic relations”
(Mavroudeas, 2001, 55). In effect, regardless of the New Solution’s
324SCIENCE & SOCIETY
claim that in their conception the value of labor-power still represents
a share of the total abstract labor performed, it is self-evident that a
“value” that is not the objectification of the social determinations of the
material production process of the commodity that acts as its “bearer,”
can hardly be taken as synonymous with what Marx termed the “value
of a commodity.” Thus, the New Solution’s eventual rejection of the
commodity nature of labor-power is the other side of the same coin
of their idiosyncratic conception of the determination of its value.
However, as Saad-Filho argues, despite the weaknesses of the New
Solution, it is not easy to find a solid alternative within the Marxist
literature (Saad-Filho, 2002, 48 ff). Most other contributions relapse
into an equally problematic Ricardian or “labor-embodied” approach.
At its most extreme, this perspective tends to assume an immediate
identity between the value of labor-power and a “fixed” bundle of
means of subsistence. But even in its more nuanced versions, this
conception does not seem able to account for the determination of
the composition of those “wage-goods,” their historical changes or the
wage differential among different segments of the working class (Fine,
1988, 180). Moreover, this Ricardian approach eventually ends up reifying workers, as if they were “slaves, beasts of burden [or] machines”
(Saad-Filho, 2002, 48) and, as a consequence, renders arbitrary the
very concept of “exploitation” (Fine et al., 2002, 11).
In order to overcome the limitations of both the New Solution and
neo-Ricardianism, Fine et al. come up with a third alternative whose
main thrust is that “the value of labor power is neither a quantity of
money nor goods but a quantity of value” which, in turn, is determined “at the aggregate level through the exchange between capital
and labor as a whole (i.e., as social classes), prior to the process of
production” (2002, 12). Now, although it is correct that the value of
labor-power is already determined prior to the process of production
which follows the capitalist’s purchase of that “peculiar commodity,”
this analysis does not take us very far from a mere repetition of what
Marx explicitly wrote in Capital. In other words, this position amounts
to just asserting the connection between the value of labor-power and
the value of means of subsistence without demonstrating it. No actual
explanation of that relationship is offered other than the invocation
of Marx’s texts. Maybe aware of this, these authors state that a proper
full explanation of the value of labor-power needs to reconsider it
at more complex levels of analysis. For instance, this requires the
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
325
dynamic redefinition of the bundle of wage-goods resulting from the
development of the productive powers of labor. Indeed, the accumulation of capital “tends both to redefine (lower) the value of labor power
and (increase) the wage bundle” (Fine et al., 2002, 12). Furthermore,
“consumption norms” vary greatly across the different categories of
workers, so that it makes no sense to posit an “average” consumption
bundle which would determine the value of labor-power “in general”
(Fine et al., 2002, 12).
It seems to us that this alternative position does not succeed
at fully overcoming the weaknesses of its opponents. First and
foremost, these authors do not actually offer a clear and precise
explanation of the determination of the value of labor-power “in
general.” Instead, they just sidetrack the problem by invoking the
need to incorporate more complex phenomena. Furthermore,
methodologically speaking, it is quite simply incorrect to argue for
the impossibility to fully resolve the question of the value of laborpower “in general” given the complexity of its concrete forms of
realization. It is not only possible but necessary to treat and settle
the question at the level of the simpler or more abstract determinations of capital.2 In fact, Marx himself made this methodological
point in the Economic Manuscripts of 1861–1863 when justifying the
initial abstraction from the determinants of the value of laborpower attributable to its complexity, since
important as the latter consideration becomes when it is a matter of analysing the differing values of individual branches of labour, here it is irrelevant,
for we are only concerned with the general relationship between capital
and labour, and therefore have in view ordinary, average labour, seeing all
labour as only a multiple of this average labour, the training costs of which
are infinitesimally small. (Marx, 1988, 43.)
2 In this sense, the issue under discussion in this paper pertains to the “level of abstraction” of
Volume I (i.e., to the social form of the process of production), and is analytically separable
from the concrete forms assumed by the establishment of the unity of the movement of
the total social capital in circulation (i.e., the “level of abstraction” of Volume III, including
the so-called “transformation problem”). In other words, this is a problem pertaining to
value-production and not to its distribution. However, one implication of our argument is clear
in this regard. If one concludes that labor-power is a fully-fledged commodity and has a
value determined “like any other commodity,” the value of variable capital does need to be
transformed into the concrete form of price of production (a task which evidently exceeds
the scope of this paper). As a consequence, we think that the alleged solution of the New
Interpretation is no solution at all.
326SCIENCE & SOCIETY
In this sense, although otherwise writing from a similar perspective
to the one just sketched out, Mavroudeas’ aforementioned contribution offers more elements both to explain the relationship between
the value of means of subsistence and the value of labor-power, and to
overcome the shortcomings of the New Solution approach. Regarding the latter, this author rightly claims that commodity values must
be explained by their content (i.e., by socially necessary labor-time
required for their production) and not by their form (i.e., by the ratio
in which they exchange against money in circulation). And although
he admits that labor-power is a “peculiar” commodity (“since it only
exists as a capacity of the living individual . . . which is commodified
in capitalism”), he argues that it does not follow from this that it is
“a natural good that enters the market without any value, acquiring
there a price” (Mavroudeas, 2001, 56). Mavroudeas thereby proceeds
to analyze the production process of labor-power and makes two additional points. First, he agrees with New Solution scholars like Mohun
that no new value is added in the “domestic” sphere of reproduction of labor-power on the very same grounds: the reproduction of
labor-power entails “human effort but this is not expended through
a capitalist production process,” the upshot of which is that “there
is no creation of new value or surplus-value and the sale of the commodity labor-power does not operate according to the rules of typical
capitalist commodity exchange (obtaining an average rate of profit
etc.)” (Mavroudeas, 2001, 56). Second, however, he also argues that
the means of consumption required for the reproduction of laborpower are capitalistically produced by wage-labor and bought in the
market, which means that they have a value determined by socially
necessary labor-time. Crucially, and here Mavroudeas goes beyond what
Marx explicitly states in Capital, he further submits that the value of the
means of “subsistence” is transferred to labor-power through the workers’ consumptive activity and therefore “this value has to be reflected
in the price that is paid for buying labor-power (wage)” (Mavroudeas,
2001, 56).
There are three problems with this defense of Marx’s argument
on the value of labor-power. In the first place, it has no textual basis in
Marx’s exposition in Capital; not because he explicitly states otherwise,
but because he does not discuss the question at all. Presumably, Marx
took for granted that in light of the determinations already unfolded
by chapter 6, it would be self-evident for readers why “human effort”
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
327
expended in the domestic sphere could not be value-positing. As he
unambiguously puts it in the section on commodity fetishism in chapter 1, “objects of utility become commodities only because they are
products of the labor of private individuals who work independently of
each other” (Marx, 1976a, 165). This leads us to the second problem.
For while Mavroudeas is right to point out that no new value is
posited in the domestic sphere of individual or personal consumption, the grounds that he offers for that claim (which he shares with
the New Solution) are essentially wrong. The expenditure of human
labor-power within the domestic sphere does not create value not
because it is not “expended through a capitalist production process
with a view to obtaining the average rate of profit.” The reason lies
in the fact that the organization of the allocation of that portion of
social labor in its particular concrete forms which takes place within
the “household” is not mediated through indirect social relations
between private and independent individuals (which, as argued elsewhere [Kicillof and Starosta, 2007a; 2007b; Starosta, 2016], is the
ground of value-positing activity). The allocation of social labor
within the domestic sphere is organized through direct, personal relations (the family). In other words, that portion of social labor does
not possess “the peculiar social character of the labor which produces
[commodities]” (Marx, 1976a, 165).3
Finally, although we shall see that Mavroudeas’ point about the
“transfer” of value from the means of consumption to the wage-­
worker’s labor-power is broadly on the right track, he does not offer
a convincing explanation of why and how this material and social process occurs.4 Note, however, that neither does Marx’s own presentation
3 Of course, all products of capital are commodities, and only in the capitalist mode of
production social wealth universally takes on the commodity-form. Yet, it does not follow
that the value-form of social wealth is grounded in the fact that it is immediately ruled with
a view to valorizing an individual capital. The simplest determination of the value-form is
given at the level of abstraction of the commodity as a presupposition of capital. This is what
grounds the content of the value-determination. By contrast, commodity production under
the command of an individual capital with a view to obtaining the average rate of profit (i.e.,
the commodity not as a methodological–systematic premise but as result of the movement of
capital) determines the concrete form in which value is realized (i.e., the price of production).
For a methodological discussion of the commodity as presupposition and result of capital,
see Marx, 1976b, 953ff.
4 The reason given by Mavroudeas is that “contrarily to consumption goods consumed by
capitalists (luxuries), workers’ consumption is a productive activity and they transfer their
value to the commodified aspect of human reproduction (labor-power)” (Mavroudeas,
2001, 56). At least on the basis of this statement alone, it is not clear to us in what sense the
workers’ consumption is a productive activity.
328SCIENCE & SOCIETY
in Chapter 6 of Capital spell out, in any systematic fashion, the way
in which the connection between the value of means of subsistence
and the value of labor-power becomes concretely established over the
course of the process of reproduction of the wage-worker. The link is
just asserted. In order to make that connection explicit, we need to
go beyond what Marx said on the question in Capital, albeit on the
basis of determinations that are perfectly in line with his argument
in the rest of the book.
The Value of Labor-Power
A first relevant element for this discussion can be found in the
Economic Manuscripts of 1861–1863. In that text, in the context of a
critique of Bailey’s “silly” (sic) objection to Ricardo’s determination of
the “value of labor,” Marx makes the point, not mentioned in Capital,
that the determination of the value of labor-power by the value of the
means of subsistence is not peculiar to that particular commodity but
applies to all “organic” commodities; for instance, it applies to the
value of animals as well (Marx, 1988, 48). Moreover, he makes clear
that the way in which the means of subsistence enter in the “price of
labor capacity” is through the “metabolic process,” i.e., through the
“exchange of matter” involved in the process of individual consumption of those means of subsistence by the bearer of human labor-power.
The price of cloth does indeed consist also of the price of the cotton yarn
consumed in it, just as the price of labor capacity consists of the means of
subsistence that enter into it through the metabolic process. Incidentally,
the reproduction of living, organic things does not depend on the labor
directly applied to them, the labor worked up in them, but on the means
of subsistence they consume — and this is the way of reproducing them.
Bailey could also have seen this in the determination of animals’ value; even
in the case of machines, in so far as coal, oil and other matières instrumentales
consumed by them enter into their cost. . . . Otherwise Bailey’s joke only has
the upshot that the labor applied to the reproduction of the organic body is
applied to its means of subsistence, not directly to the body itself, since the
appropriation of these means of subsistence through consumption is not
work but rather enjoyment. (Marx, 1988, 48.)
In other words, the “transfer” of the value of means of subsistence to
the commodity labor-power takes place through the material change
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
329
of form of those use-values into the bodily (physical and intellectual)
productive attributes of the wage-worker. Similarly to the transfer of
the value of means of production to the final product, one could say
that the value of means of subsistence, as Marx puts it, “undergoes a
metempsychosis” (Marx, 1976a, 314). Through this “transmigration,”
value “deserts the consumed body to occupy the newly created one”
(Marx, 1976a, 314). The analogy, however, stops here.
For unlike means of production, labor-power is not, in and of
itself, a use-value (Iñigo Carrera, 1995, 5).5 In other words, it is not
in itself a means for human life, “a thing that through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (Marx, 1976a, 125), although
its existence is clearly a condition for the specifically human process
of material metabolism. However, although human labor-power is
not a use-value by its own material nature, it becomes form-determined as
such when subsumed by capital as the active condition for its valorization. In
effect, given the private form taken by social production, labor-power
embodies the capacity to produce value and, more specifically, more
value than it costs. (Surplus)value-positing for capital becomes its
form-determined use-value.6 Thus, it is the constitution of the value-form
into the alienated subject of social life that turns labor-power into a
use-value, by determining the exercise of that human capacity as the
immediate source of its self-expansion.
As Marx shows in Chapter 23 of Volume I on “Simple Reproduction,” the constitution of the total social capital into the subject of the
movement of society reaches its plenitude when subsuming material
reproduction in its unity, i.e., when it subordinates not only social production and circulation, but also the process of individual consumption (Marx, 1976a, 711ff). As a consequence, the unity of the human
5 Note that transformation of the use-value of means of production into a new use-value is
for Marx a necessary condition for the “transmigration” of their value to take place: “The
reason why means of production do not lose their value at the same time as they lose their
use-value is that they lose in the labor process the original form of their use-value only to
assume in the product the form of a new use-value. But however important it may be to
value to exist in, it is still a matter of complete indifference what particular object serves
this purpose” (Marx, 1976a, 310).
6 This, we take it, is the meaning of the following passage from the original text of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “For money as capital, labor capacity is the immediate
use value for which it has to exchange itself. In the simple circulation, the content of the
use value was indifferent, dropped out of the economic determination of form. Here it
is its essential economic moment. For the exchange value is determined as firmly established
in exchange above all because it is exchanged with a use value confronting it in its own form
determination” (Marx, 1987b, 504).
330SCIENCE & SOCIETY
metabolic process becomes inverted into a moment of the reproduction of capital. The implication of this is that in capitalist society the
process of individual consumption does not bring each cycle of the
process of metabolism to a close. In other words, in the capitalist
mode of production individual consumption in the domestic sphere
is not synonymous with final consumption, as economics, both “classical” and “vulgar,” would have it (Ricardo, 1821, 339; Jevons, 1871,
47; Keynes, 1936, 104). The latter moment is reached in the sphere
where labor-power is consumed for the production of more value than
its reproduction costs, i.e., in the phase of productive consumption or
the labor process. This is crucial for the link between the privately
undertaken socially necessary abstract labor-time materialized in the
means of subsistence and the value of labor-power. Let us examine
the matter more closely.7
The workers buy those means of consumption in order to reproduce their life as social subjects. In doing so, the value objectified in
them is realized since the private labor that had been expended on
them is confirmed as socially necessary. Those use-values are then
taken to the domestic sphere of individual consumption, where they
are either consumed straightaway if their materiality was immediately
apt for the satisfaction of a human need, or subject to a further labor
process. However, we have seen that in this latter case the objectification of social labor does not result in its representation in the social
form of value.
Now, when those use-values are consumed, their materiality does
not simply vanish but only changes form into reconstituted laborpower which, as argued above, is not in itself a use-value. Hence, if
the immediate aim of the social reproduction process were the reproduction of human life (as would happen with a simple circulation
of commodities), this transformation of the materiality of means of
consumption into productive attributes of the human subject would
bring this particular cycle of social reproduction to a close. Thus,
even if those use-values had the commodity-form, their value would
disappear definitively with that consumptive appropriation of their
materiality.
However, we have further argued that from the point of view of
the alienated organization of human life as an attribute of capital, that
7 In what follows we draw on Iñigo Carrera, 1995, 6–7.
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
331
process does not close the cycle of social reproduction, but is only a
passing moment in the process of value’s self-valorization. Thus, the
commodities consumed by the wage-worker must be turned into the
production of his/her particular labor-power, that is, into the determinate productive attributes that the material conditions for the valorization of capital determine as a new use-value. Hence, from the general
social point of view, the new form which those means of consumption
acquire by being transformed in the renewed labor-power of the wageworker still needs to prove socially necessary, which in this context
does not mean that it is capable of satisfying a human want, but that
it is able to valorize capital. In other words, the confirmation that the
portion of social labor originally allocated privately in the particular
concrete form of those means of consumption was socially useful
entails a further mediation, namely: the success of the wage laborer
at selling his/her labor-power as a commodity, i.e., as a use-value that
has been produced in a private and independent manner from the
point of view of the form-determined content of the unity of the social
metabolic process. This is why the value borne by those means of subsistence
does not disappear with their consumption in the household but reappears as
the value of labor-power. If the latter is effectively sold, then the social
labor expended in the production of the means of consumption which
the worker had consumed to reproduce labor-power is eventually
confirmed as socially useful.
Still, this does not yet bring the cycle of that commodity to an end.
The realization of its use-value is still pending, a process that can only
occur through its consumption. Therefore, only when the latter is
effectively consumed (i.e., exploited) by capital in the immediate production process as a specific use-value which is capable of producing
surplus-value, that particular cycle of social reproduction is brought
to a close. It is only at that stage that the use-value of labor-power
(and so the changed form of the original means of consumption)
suffers final appropriation and, with that, its value is eventually extinguished. On the other hand, that very consumption of labor-power
by capital privately produces new commodities and hence, new value
and surplus-value.
In sum, this discussion shows that there is a necessary material
link between socially necessary labor-time expended in the production of means of subsistence and the value of labor-power. Although
the mediations that connect the value of means of subsistence with
332SCIENCE & SOCIETY
the value of labor-power are not fleshed out by Marx, it is possible
to establish that nexus in a way which is absolutely consistent with
the general determinations of the value-form that he did present
in Capital. In effect, we have shown that, with the proviso about the
form-determined nature of its use-value, all the determinations of the
commodity-form are present in the production of labor-power. Paraphrasing Marx, a “definite quantity” of privately undertaken socially
necessary abstract labor “is objectified in it.” That objectification of
labor-time must therefore take on the value-form in order to manifest
its general social character. The objections of critics to the commoditynature of labor-power are therefore unfounded.
In light of this conclusion, in the next couple of sections we turn
to the discussion of two classic Marxist controversies that touched
upon the production process of labor-power: the debates on “domestic
labor” and on “skilled labor.” As we shall see, our approach to the
reproduction of labor-power as commodity determined by the selfvalorization of capital will prove to be very valuable in shedding light
on many of the contentious issues involved in those debates.
The Domestic Labor Debate
This debate was motivated by the perceived need to investigate
more thoroughly the labor process performed within the wage-­worker’s
household (Benston, 1969; Morton, 1971). In the view of most of the
participants, this task had not been undertaken satisfactorily within
Marxism (Vogel, 2000, 156). Following on from Dalla Costa and James’
contribution (1972), the attention of many scholars subsequently
turned to Marx’s argument about the quantitative determination of
the value of labor-power. More specifically, several works made a case
for the reconsideration of domestic labor as value-producing. Two
different but converging arguments were put forward. In the first
place, some authors argued that domestic labor is part of socially
necessary labor for the production of labor-power and must therefore
enter into the quantitative determination of its value and be reflected
in the wage (Secombe, 1974). A second approach postulated that
domestic labor is not immediately represented as the value of labor
power, but indirectly as capital’s surplus value or profit. In its more
sophisticated version, this perspective maintained that the surplus
labor of the domestic worker is appropriated by capitalists through
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
333
the exchange of labor-power against a wage that does not pay for all
the labor-time “objectified” in it (Harrison, 1973; Gardiner, 1976).
Various objections were raised against this broad “heterodox” perspective, the main one being that domestic labor is not subordinated to
the law of value insofar as it is neither performed under capitalist relations of production (Himmelweit and Mohun, 1977), nor organized
with a view to exchange (Smith, 1978). Hence, these critiques went
on, concrete labor performed in the household cannot be reduced
to socially necessary labor and therefore cannot be value-producing.
In sum, these critics rejected the validity of the social identification of
domestic and wage labor, which is precisely what the original contributions had assumed. Now, although we concur with these critics that it
is incorrect to consider domestic labor as (surplus)value-producing,
those original contributions had nonetheless the merit of providing
an in-depth and detailed examination of the processes involved in
the (re)production of labor-power. In some cases, those contributions
even hinted at the aforementioned problem of the “transference” of
the value of means of subsistence into the commodity labor-power.
As a matter of fact, the pioneering work by Inman from the 1940s
had already submitted that “the value of the commodities consumed
by the worker’s family . . . reappear[s] again on the market, but in a
new form, as the commodity labor-power” (Inman, 1942, 45, cited in
Thomas, 1987, 331). As mentioned above, this insight is crucial for
the determination of the value of labor-power by the socially necessary labor objectified in the means of subsistence and, a fortiori, for
the commodity-nature of labor-power.
Be that as it may, the point is that as a result of this debate, many
Marxist scholars were led to question Marx’s overall argument regarding the determination of the value of labor-power. Thus, Philip Harvey
(1983, 308–310) suggested that if the value of means of subsistence
reappears in the value of labor-power, this necessarily means that the
workers’ individual consumption is in reality a labor process, which
utilizes those means of subsistence as means of production of laborpower. But if this is the case, Harvey continues, this “labor of productive consumption” must be considered as socially necessary for the
production of labor-power. And the same goes for domestic labor that
further transforms means of subsistence originally purchased as commodities with the wage. On these grounds, and in the face of the fact
that Marx did not include these expenditures of human bodily powers
334SCIENCE & SOCIETY
in the determination of the value of labor-power, Harvey concluded
that Marx’s approach does not actually constitute a “labor theory” of
the value of labor-power but a “cost of production theory” (P. Harvey,
1983, 307, 312). In other words, the value of this “peculiar commodity”
is not, pace Marx, determined “as in the case of every other commodity” by the “labor-time necessary for the production . . . of this specific
article” (Marx, 1976a, 274).8
From our perspective, these analyses reach these problematic
conclusions because they overlook the essential determination at stake
in the transference of value between different use-values, namely:
the need to re-validate the social character of privately performed
labor. This is a process that is generally mediated by productive labor
but that, in the context of the overall movement of reproduction of
the total social capital, takes place as well through individual consumption. As argued at great length above, the abstract character of
privately performed labor objectified as the value-form of means of
subsistence does not attain definitive recognition as socially necessary at the moment of their purchase by the working class family.
This only occurs when the capitalist buys their labor-power with the
aim of valorizing his/her capital and subsequently consumes them
productively in the direct production process. Only at that point is
the formal use-value of labor-power finally extinguished and its value
therefore disappears. Hence, the reappearance of the value of means
of subsistence as the value of labor-power simply expresses the need to
reassert, under the new guise assumed by those use-values, the social
character of the privately performed labor originally objectified in
them. In other words, this “transfer of value” is quite simply derived
from the general determination underlying the value-form of the
product of labor: it is the reified form through which the immanent
social determinations of human productive activity are represented
when they are indirectly organized through the general production
and exchange of commodities.
Why, then, is the labor performed in-between the wage-worker’s
purchase of means of subsistence and the sale of labor-power not
8 Some years later, Thomas (1987, 127) tried to avoid these conclusions by arguing that
the only labor that transfers value is “commodity-producing, value-creating labor.” Hence,
Marx’s argument needed to be amended in order to incorporate the fact that domestic
labor produces value. In this way, she reinstated the feminist critique that considered Marx’s
approach as incomplete (if not directly flawed).
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
335
represented as its value? The answer to this question cannot just come
down to saying, as in most critiques of the “heterodox” camp in the
debate, that “domestic labor” is not subordinated to the “law of value.”
As a matter of fact, this is precisely what needs to be explained. Thus,
the reason why this labor is not value-producing is that it is not private
labor vis-à-vis the immediate consumer of its product. And note that this
applies both to reproductive labor undertaken by the worker him/
herself (which is not even social labor) and to work performed by
other family members (which is social since it is done for another
individual, i.e., the wage-worker, but directly so, i.e., its social character
is organized through personal social relations). This point can be further
clarified through a comparison with the domestic labor undertaken by
a hired cleaner or cook. In the latter case, it does create value, since
we do have an instance of privately performed social labor vis-à-vis
the immediate consumer of its product, which thereby does take the
commodity-form (as much as the labor that, for instance, produces
the meals that the worker eats at a restaurant; the fact that the former
occurs in the household is immaterial). As a consequence, the “domestic labor” performed by a hired cleaner or cook does enter into the
determination of the value of labor-power.9 Thus, the feminist normative claim that reproductive labor be considered as value-producing
is revealed as underpinned by an essentially ahistorical or Ricardian
conception of value, insofar as it considers that all productive expenditure of labor-power is value-producing regardless of its “peculiar
social character” (Marx, 1976a, 165).
In sum, it is perfectly possible to explain the parts respectively
played by the domestic productive and consumptive processes in the
9 In this sense, it must be acknowledged that Marx’s presentation in Capital is not entirely
satisfactory in this regard. Thus, he claims that labor-power has value like all other commodities because “it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average social
labor objectified in it” (Marx, 1976a, 274). For the sake of rigor and clarity, he should have
actually referred to “privately undertaken average social labor objectified in it.” In other
words, only commodities (and not simply use-values) consumed by workers enter into the
determination of the value of labor-power. In Marx’s defense, it was probably a shorthand
expression which, even if not entirely correct, was seen by him as harmless in light of the
rigorous and lengthy exposition of the determinations of the commodity-form contained
in the first section of Capital (cf. his remark on overlooking the difference between value
and exchange-value for the sake of brevity once the dialectical exposition has established
their “unity and difference”). Besides, in the Economic Manuscripts of 1861–1863 he made
the point explicitly: in its general determination, “the means of subsistence needed for the
maintenance or reproduction of labor capacity can all be reduced to commodities” (Marx,
1988, 43).
336SCIENCE & SOCIETY
formation of the value of labor-power, on the basis of Marx’s “valueform theory.” All privately undertaken socially-necessary labor for the
production of this “peculiar commodity” is represented as its value,
while all directly social necessary labor is not. Therefore, the critique
of Marx’s analysis of the value of labor-power stemming from the
“domestic labor debate” is ill-founded. The lack of conceptualization
of this labor in the determination of value is not a “blind spot” of the
Marxian critique of political economy (Werlhof, 1988). It is perfectly
consistent with the “purely social objectivity” of the value-form that
Marx discovered.
The Skilled Labor Debate
The question about the kind of labor expended to produce laborpower and, more specifically, about its preservation or destruction in
subsequent phases of capital’s overall circulation process has been at
the center of another important controversy within Marxism, namely:
the skilled labor debate. In this section, we review the main positions
in the debate and offer some reflections on the way in which our
reconsideration of the determinations of the commodity-nature of
labor-power can shed light on many of the apparent difficulties posed
by the “multiplied” value-producing powers of skilled labor.
The debate on skilled labor was initiated by Böhm-Bawerk’s wellknown criticism of Marx’s value-theory (Böhm-Bawerk, 1890; 1949).
According to this author, the Marxian explanation of the equalization
of qualitatively different labors fails because the argument unfolds “in
a complete circle”: it starts out in search for an explanation of the
exchange relation but, insofar as it is argued that “the standard of
reduction [of skilled to simple labor] is determined solely by the actual
exchange relations themselves,” it ends up accounting for the exchange
relation on the basis of that very same exchange relation! (BöhmBawerk, 1949, 83). The first line of reply provided by Marxists was
that the greater value of the product of skilled labor is not explained
by the exchange relation, but by the greater value of more complex
labor-power. According to this conception, the higher the value of
labor-power, the greater will be the magnitude of value that results
from its objectification (Bernstein, 1900).
However, other Marxists very soon took this explanation to task
for relapsing into a theory of value founded on “costs of production.”
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
337
As Hilferding noted, Bernstein’s explanation wanted “to deduce the
value of the product from the ‘value of labor’” (Hilferding, 1949, 141).
As an alternative, Hilferding and other authors proposed a procedure
for the reduction of skilled to simple labor based on the addition of
the quantities of simple labor that materialized in the production of
skilled labor-power and which, indirectly, become “condensed” in
the actual expenditure of the latter. More specifically, according to
these authors these “formative labors” included both the work of the
“technical educator” (Hilferding, 1949, 144) and that of the skilled
laborer (in his/her capacity as student) (Bauer, 1906). Those past
formative labors, Hilferding states, “are stored up in the person of the
qualified laborer, and not until he begins to work are these formative
labors made fluid on behalf of society” (Hilferding, 1949, 144).
Until the mid-1970s, the Hilferding–Bauer approach was widely
accepted by Marxists as the definitive response to Böhm-Bawerk (e.g.,
Sweezy, 1942; Meek, 1956; Rowthorn, 1974). However, soon after that
some Marxists started to raise some reservations against the alleged
solution to the “reduction problem.” In the first place, it was argued
that the Hilferding–Bauer reduction procedure implied different rates
of surplus value for skilled and simple labor which, it was claimed,
contradicted the Marxist theory of exploitation (Morishima, 1973).
Second, other scholars argued that in conceiving of the worker’s skills
as the material condensation of past labor that would subsequently be
represented in the higher value of the product, the productive attributes of workers were treated as constant capital (Tortajada, 1977). In
relation to the first of these objections, let us note that the existence
of different rates of surplus value leaves the general qualitative determination underlying the exploitation of wage-workers untouched. In
effect, regardless of the relative complexity of his/her labor-power,
each worker performs (on average) as much labor for capital as the
normal long-term reproduction of his/her labor-power allows. And
he/she receives in exchange an equivalent of the socially necessary
labor time for the reproduction of those productive attributes that
capital demands from him/her. The fact that this might result in different rates of surplus value for labor-powers of different qualifications
only affects the degree in which capital will appropriate unpaid surplus
labor. But it does not compromise the validity of Marx’s explanation
of the source of surplus value in the exploitation of the wage-worker.
Furthermore, these varied rates of surplus value are immaterial for
338SCIENCE & SOCIETY
the individual capital, insofar as it could be argued that this is but
another differential condition of valorization that becomes averaged
out through the formation of the general rate of profit (similarly to
differences in the organic composition or turnover rates).
By contrast, the second objection does pinpoint a real flaw in
the traditional “reduction method,” insofar as the latter involves a
departure from the general determinations of value and surplus
value. More specifically, it parts company with Marx’s argument
that it is only the expenditure of the living labor of the worker that
posits new value in the product, while the value of constant capital
(i.e., “past labor”) is only “transferred” in the same magnitude. In
postulating that the value of the product of skilled labor includes
the “past labor” materialized in the more skilled labor-power, the
classic solution ends up effectively conflating constant and variable
capital. On this score, we concur with those who rejected the Hilferding–Bauer train of thought.
In the face of these shortcomings of the traditional reduction
procedure, new alternative solutions appeared that changed con­
siderably the very terms of the problem without, however, achieving
any consensus. Thus, some scholars proposed that the reduction of
skilled to simple labor should be regarded as a real and observable
process of de-skilling of labor-power resulting from capital’s transformation of the labor process (D. Harvey, 1982; Itoh, 1987; Carchedi,
1991), while others opted for considering skilled labor quite simply
as more productive (P. Harvey, 1985; Bidet, 2007; Saad-Filho, 2002).
In our view, rather than solving the “skilled labor” reduction problem, these alternative just sidestep it. By contrast, we think that our
approach to the determination of the value of labor-power sketched
out above offers a valuable and novel way to critically examine the
classic Hilferding–Bauer reduction procedure and to develop a more
rigorous explanation of the “multiplied” value-creating powers of
skilled labor.
In the first place, having demonstrated that labor-power is a fullyfledged commodity we know with certainty that its value is exclusively
determined by the privately performed socially necessary abstract
labor required for its production. Moreover, insofar as capital’s productive consumption of labor-power closes the form-determined cycle
of social reproduction, this value disappears through the expenditure of the worker’s living labor in the direct production process.
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
339
Consequently, regardless of the degree of complexity embodied in the
worker’s labor-power, no single “atom” of its value can be preserved
and transferred to the product of his/her labor. In this sense, the labor
of the “technical educator” or the labor objectified in a textbook are
hardly different from those labors objectified in the most prosaic of
commodities that the worker consumes during his/her lunchtime.
Assuming that they have the commodity-form, they are all part of the
privately undertaken socially necessary labor required for the production of the commodity labor-power and, in that condition, they are
absolutely independent of the labor that the worker will perform when
setting his/her labor-power into motion in the capitalist labor process.
Now, Hilferding–Bauer and their followers obviously think that
their reduction procedure avoids Bernstein’s error of grounding the
value of the product of skilled labor in the value of skilled labor-power.
However, it seems to us that by including in the value of the product of
skilled labor the socially necessary labors required for the production
of skilled labor-power, they end up relapsing into a similar elementary
mistake, namely: conflation of the value of labor-power (the “past
labor” objectified in it) and its use-value (the value-positing capacity
of living labor in action). As stated above, there can be no trace of
the past labor required for the production of skilled labor-power
in the “multiplied” value-positing powers of skilled living labor in
action. The central question still stands unanswered: how is the
higher value of the product of skilled labor explained?
Again, here we think that the answer must be: “as in the case of any
other commodity,” i.e., by the privately performed socially necessary
abstract labor required for its production. The key, of course, resides
in being absolutely clear and precise about which private labors are
socially necessary just for the production of the product of skilled labor.
And these come down to the living labor of the skilled worker, the
“dead” labor objectified in the means of production consumed by living labor in the capitalist production process and, crucially, the labor
expended by the skilled laborer himself/herself (i.e., not by the “technical
educator”) with a view to acquiring the skills that are socially necessary
for the production of the said commodity. As we have seen, the latter is a
kind of labor which, insofar as it is not private from the point of view
of the production of (skilled) labor-power, does not enter into the
determination of its value. However, it definitely is private and socially
necessary from the perspective of the production of the use-value that
340SCIENCE & SOCIETY
the skilled laborer will produce under the command of the capitalist.
For that reason, it enters into the value of the product of skilled labor.
Clearly, this admittedly succinct answer does not address all the
complexities and subtleties involved in the debate over the reduction
of skilled to simple labor, a task which exceeds the scope of this section.10 However, this discussion should suffice to shed light on the gist
of the solution to this long-standing difficulty in Marxist value theory:
the rigorous identification of the opening and closing phases of each
capital-determined cycle of social production and consumption and,
as a consequence, of the exact amount of privately performed socially
necessary abstract labor that is required for the production of each
particular commodity.
Conclusion
This article has critically examined the rejection of the commodity-nature of labor-power based on the broad argument that it is not
produced under the direct command of capital. Although its lineage
can be traced back to the early 20th century, this long-standing argument gained new life recently in association with the so-called New
Solution approach to the transformation problem. This perspective
has encountered some valid critical reactions which, however, have
not offered a solid and conclusive alternative. In light of this, we
took up the challenge and attempted to develop an explanation of
the fully-fledged commodity-character of labor-power on the basis of
Marx’s own analysis of the value-form but beyond what he explicitly
stated in Capital.
In a nutshell, our contribution revolved around the clear identification and differentiation of the specific social character of all the
labor involved in the production of labor-power, from the point of view
of the reproduction of the total social capital. It is the latter which, as the
10 One of the issues not addressed in this paper is the consistency of the different solutions
with the scarce number of quotes by Marx that treat the subject of skilled labor. For instance,
in one highly controversial passage Marx states that the respective rates of surplus value
of skilled and simple labor are equal (Marx, 1981, 241). From our perspective, Marx was
probably assuming that the use-values needed for the daily reproduction of each type of
labor-power are identical, so that if the skilled laborer expends a working day at home to
acquire the skills, the subsequent expenditure of skilled labor-power will objectify twice the
amount of value. But since his/her labor-power will have cost twice, the rate of surplus value
will remain the same.
THE COMMODITY NATURE OF LABOR-POWER
341
general social relation presiding over the movement of present-day
society, gives unity and content to the human life-process. The crucial upshot of this for the purpose of grasping the commodity-nature
of labor-power was two-fold. First, only privately undertaken social
labor can form the value of labor-power. Second, when subsumed
under the overall movement of the total social capital’s reproduction,
the privately performed labor required for labor-power’s production
attains final validation of its social usefulness only when it is exploited
by capital in the direct process of production. This was the key link
to explain the reappearance of the value of means of subsistence as
the value of labor-power. On these grounds, we were able to reach
the same conclusion that Marx reaches in chapter 6 of Volume I of
Capital, namely, that the value of labor-power is determined, just “as
in the case of every other commodity,” by the (privately performed)
socially necessary labor for its production. However, unlike Marx’s
unmediated assertion, we unfolded all the mediations that are necessary to validate that claim.
As we have seen, this approach to the value of labor-power not only
offers a way of grounding one of the fundamental categories of the
critique of political economy. In addition, it provides useful tools to
overcome the impasse reached within two classic Marxist controversies
that have an intimate connection with the social processes under­lying
the production of labor-power and its form-determinations as a commodity, both as a value and as a use-value : the debate on domestic labor
and the debate on skilled labor. Regarding the former, we have seen
that our approach can shed light on the only reason why domestic
labor is not value-producing. Briefly put, it is a part of social labor that
is organized through direct personal relations, i.e., that is not privately
performed vis-à-vis the consumer of its product. As for skilled labor,
we showed that the only way to be consistent with its definition while
avoiding the confusion between the value and the use-value of skilled
labor-power, is to grasp that only the “formative labor” undertaken
by the wage-laborer himself/herself is private vis-à-vis the final consumer of the commodity that he/she will eventually produce under
the command of capital. For this reason, only this privately performed
socially necessary labor must be added to the productive living labor
of the skilled worker in order to determine the value of its product.
In sum, we have seen that in both the case of domestic labor and that
of skilled labor, the key to resolving the issues that gave rise to the
342SCIENCE & SOCIETY
respective debates, consists in the clear understanding of the part that
they play in the overall cycle of valorization of capital.
Guido Starosta:
Departamento de Economía y Administración
Universidad Nacional de Quilmes
Roque Sáenz Peña 352
1876BXD
Bernal, Buenos Aires
Argentina
[email protected]
Gastón Caligaris:
Departamento de Economía y Administración
Universidad Nacional de Quilmes
Roque Sáenz Peña 352
1876BXD
Bernal, Buenos Aires
Argentina
[email protected]
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